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Durham University

Learning and Teaching Handbook

6.2.6: Student Absence, Illness and Adverse Circumstances

1. The University expects all students to fulfil all compulsory academic commitments (for instance, attendance at classes; submission of summative coursework; examinations). However, it is inevitable that some students will experience difficulties outside their control (such as illness or personal problems) that will adversely impact on their work or prevent them from fulfilling their commitments. This section of the Learning and Teaching Handbook details University policy and procedure in respect of such circumstances.

2. The University is committed to supporting students from all backgrounds. In addition to the procedure below, the University has separate procedures to apply adjustments for students under the terms of the Equality Act 2010. Staff should be fully aware of such procedures. Advice and guidance can be sought from the Diversity and Equality office and (for disabled students) from Disability Support.

3. In order for the University to provide appropriate support, students are strongly encouraged to inform their department(s) and college as soon as any adverse circumstances occur, and normally within five days, using the procedures outlined below. Students must not wait until they receive their marks to inform their department. A flowchart outlining the process is available via appendix a6.10 of section 6 of the Learning and Teaching Handbook.

4. The general approach is to attempt, where possible and appropriate, to mitigate circumstances ‘in-year’, for instance through extensions to deadlines for summative coursework. The process for ‘in-year’ mitigation does not apply to formally timetabled University examinations, for which the Serious Adverse Circumstances (SAC) process is designed. Both processes are outlined below.

5. The procedure and forms detailed below relate only to circumstances beyond the student’s control. There is a separate University procedure and form for absences due to sporting commitments (see section 2.4.6 of the Learning and Teaching Handbook).

In-Year Problems and Mitigation

6. The University has a responsibility to monitor student attendance for reasons of student support; to ensure that programme learning outcomes are met; and to meet Home Office requirements in respect of international students. Departments/schools must have an agreed procedure for monitoring attendance at compulsory lectures, classes, etc., and for 'chasing up' students who are absent without having informed the department / school. The procedure will typically involve informal contact with the student in the first instance to identify the reasons for the student’s absence so that appropriate action can be taken. The procedure should be made known to students and adhered to. If a student is absent but fails to inform anyone, they should be reminded of the proper procedures.

7. All departments/schools must have processes to record self-certified or other missed academic commitments and to approve extensions to deadlines for assessed work or equivalent forms of mitigation, in accordance with the procedures outlined below.

Missed Academic Commitments

8. The University expects students to meet all academic commitments associated with their programme of study. Departments/schools are responsible for determining precisely which academic commitments are compulsory for each programme. These must be made clear in the degree programme handbook, and are also published in the online Faculty Handbook and the Postgraduate Module Handbook. Students must familiarise themselves with departmental/school compulsory attendance requirements.

9. It is the student’s responsibility to ‘catch up’ on missed academic commitments by making mutually agreeable alternative arrangements (for instance, to read the expected texts; to attend an alternative seminar on the same topic). Departments will endeavour to support this when possible, but this will not always be feasible.

10. If a student is unwell or affected by some other adverse circumstance beyond their control and as a result is absent or anticipates being absent in the short-term and cannot attend he/she should:

a. complete and submit a Self-Certification of Absence Form stating their circumstances and the duration of their absence, and then submit this Form to their College who will transmit it to the relevant department(s). The Form can be collected from College Student Support Offices and is also available as appendix a6.12 in section 6 of the Learning and Teaching Handbook. Colleges can assist in completing the required Form;

AND

b. inform the members of academic staff leading the missed commitment as appropriate as a courtesy. This is particularly important when their absence will directly affect their session (e.g. if the student was to give a presentation or participate in group work); AND

c. feel strongly encouraged to discuss their circumstances with their College Student Support Office if they feel pastoral support would be helpful. Colleges may also approach students to offer such support upon receipt of the Form.

11. Students are trusted to self-certify accurately and honestly, and there is no need to provide further evidence (e.g. a medical certificate) to justify absence from classes. The provision of false information will be regarded as a disciplinary offence by the University.

12. An undergraduate student may self-certify on two occasions per term for a maximum of seven consecutive calendar days on each occasion. A term in this context refers to both term-time and the following vacation. A postgraduate student may self-certify on two occasions per three month period for a maximum of seven consecutive calendar days on each occasion. The two opportunities for self-certification cannot be used consecutively (e.g. it is not possible to self-certify twice for seven days to cover a consecutive fourteen day period). The college is responsible for checking that these limits have not been exceeded and for investigating any cases of attempts to self-certify on more than two occasions per term (undergraduates) / three month period (postgraduates). The general expectation is that the form should be completed within five days after the problem has occurred.

13. Students who exceed these limits should consult their department and college to discuss their situation and explore possible means of support (for instance, a concession to temporarily take time out from their studies). They should provide independent evidence (as far as this is possible) to explain the reasons for their absence. Examples of appropriate evidence are detailed in paragraph 35 below.

14. After a stated number of absences, students will be required to attend an interview with an appropriate member of academic staff. If need be the Academic Progress Procedure should be invoked (for which see Section 2.6.3).

Absences Affecting Summative Coursework

15. The procedure outlined in this section relates to the submission of summatively assessed coursework (including dissertations). Different procedures apply to formally timetabled examinations (see below).

16. Students who believe that their academic performance is being adversely affected by reasons beyond their control are strongly encouraged to contact their department and college to explore the possible options of support.

17. If a student is absent due to some adverse circumstance beyond their control and as a result anticipates missing a deadline to hand in summatively assessed coursework, or anticipates missing a class which leads directly to the submission of work which counts towards summative assessment (e.g. a practical class leading to a summatively assessed lab report) and therefore cannot hand in the associated work;

he / she should:

a. contact their department as soon as possible to discuss and seek possible mitigation; AND

b. complete and submit a Self-Certification of Absence Form stating their circumstances and the duration of their absence, and then submit this Form to their College who will transmit it to the relevant department(s). The Form can be collected from College Student Support Offices and is also available via is also available as appendix a6.12 in section 6 of the Learning and Teaching Handbook. Colleges can assist in completing the required Form;

AND

c. consult their College Student Support Office to discuss pastoral support, if they feel this would be helpful. Colleges may also approach students to offer such support upon receipt of the Form.

18. All such requests for mitigation require departmental approval. Mitigation outcomes may include, for instance, a negotiated extension to a deadline; a grace period to temporarily take time out from studies; or some other concession.

19. The limits on self-certification outlined in paragraph 12 above apply. Students within those limits do not need to provide independent evidence in support of their absence / illness and request for mitigation. Students are trusted to self-certify accurately and honestly.

20. If the student has used both his/her opportunities for self-certification during the term (for undergraduates) / three month-period (for postgraduates) in question, the student should discuss their situation with their department and College. Independent evidence may be required at this stage. Examples of appropriate evidence are provided in paragraph 35 below.

21. The expectation is that students should apply for mitigation in advance of deadlines. The University recognises that adverse circumstances such as illness will sometimes make this impractical. If a student believes that an adverse circumstance caused the failure to submit summative work by a due deadline, it is his / her responsibility to contact their department / school as soon as possible to explain the situation and to request a retrospective extension (or other appropriate mitigation). Students in such situations should also complete the Self-Certification of Absence Form as soon as possible. The student should normally complete the Form and contact their department within five days of their problem occurring, and no later than five days after the deadline for the submission of the assessment. The procedure mirrors that described in paragraph 17 above.

22. The principle is that students can use self-certification of absence to support a request for mitigation only if their absence results from circumstances beyond their control. This renders it difficult to produce a definitive list of ‘good reasons’ under which students may default on their academic commitments through self-certification. The following is indicative but not exhaustive:

a. significant illness, comparable to that which would result in absence from work;
b. hospital appointment, doctor’s appointment, emergency dental appointment;
c. bereavement;
d. significant personal problems or events (e.g. a family crisis; being the victim of a crime);
e. significant illness of a close relative or dependent (e.g. sufficient to require absence from the University or that the student needs to act as a carer).

In support of employability, departments may in some instances also be willing to allow students to default on their academic commitments to attend job or internship interviews with graduate employers. However, such absences are at the discretion of departments and should always be negotiated with departments in advance.

23. Self-certification should not be used in respect of general pressure of deadlines, missing deadlines due to oversleeping, failing to print out work on time, breakdown of printers and so on. Students are expected to manage their work to be able to cope with such problems.

24. Whilst all requests for mitigation should be carefully considered, students should not assume that requests for mitigation will automatically be approved. There may also be some instances where it is not reasonable for the department to implement a particular type of mitigation requested by a student (for instance, it may not be feasible to offer an extension in respect of a practical assessment). In such instances, departments should consider whether another form of mitigation or support would be more appropriate.

25. In considering requests for mitigation, departments will either:

a. accept that the student has good reason due to their circumstances for having defaulted on his/her academic commitments and (for retrospective requests) could not reasonably have negotiated in advance an extension to the deadline for summatively assessed work (and, where applicable, absence from the class leading to that work). In this case the department/school permits an extension or retrospective extension as appropriate to the deadline for the submission of work, or offers another form of mitigation as appropriate (for instance, other means of assessing the learning outcome associated with the assessment);
or
b. not accept that the student has good reason for having defaulted on their academic commitments and (for retrospective requests) could not have negotiated an extension to the deadline or an excused absence in advance. In this instance, the department should inform the student; apply University penalties for late submission of assessed work as appropriate; and (where applicable) considers the student as having been absent from class without good cause.

26. Normally the only grounds on which a retrospective extension will be granted are where circumstances beyond the control of the student have prevented submission.

27. The student must be informed in writing of the outcome of the department’s consideration of the student’s request for mitigation. If an extension is granted then the new deadline must be made clear to the student, in writing, and the procedures with regard to meeting the new deadline should be those outlined in this policy statement. If the student fails to meet the new deadline then the department should apply standard University policy and penalties on late submission of assessed work. Students should remember that failure to submit summative assessed work on the due date without a negotiated extension or self-certification means that University procedures and penalties on late submission of assessed work will apply (see Section 6.2.5).

28. Students must advise their department(s) if their adverse circumstances are ongoing or if new adverse circumstances come to light, such that they believe that mitigation applied is insufficient (for instance, if a student has negotiated an extension due to illness, but their illness continues longer than anticipated). The procedures outlined above should be applied in such circumstances. Students must not wait until they receive their marks to advise departments of such difficulties.

Serious Adverse Circumstances

29. The process for in-year mitigation outlined above does not apply in the following instances:

a. missed examinations (further detail on policy and procedure on missed examinations is supplied in paragraph 50 below);

b. serious adverse circumstances affecting performance in examinations or preparations for examinations within the examination period. For the purposes of this procedure, the ‘examination period’ is defined, normally, as the start of the Easter vacation until the student’s last exam. Departments with examinations outside the ‘normal’ period will specify other times for which the SAC procedure should apply in respect of examinations or preparation for examinations, to be agreed with their Deputy Head of Faculty and publicised in course handbooks;

c. adverse circumstances affecting student’s performance in summative assessments besides examinations, when for good reasons beyond their control or that of their department the student was unable to bring these circumstances or the extent of their impact to the attention of their department at the time.

Students cannot self-certify in these instances. Instead, the Serious Adverse Circumstance (SAC) procedure applies.

30. Serious adverse circumstances are defined as "exceptional personal circumstances, outside your control, that have prevented you from either acquiring or demonstrating the skills, knowledge or competencies required to meet the learning outcomes associated with an assessment that contributes to the qualification for which you are studying, notwithstanding your best efforts, in consultation with your department/school and College, to mitigate those circumstances". Students who anticipate that serious adverse circumstances will impact upon their examinations are advised to consult their department / school and College to discuss possible support.

31. Serious adverse circumstances are circumstances beyond the student's control – for example, illness; a family crisis; bereavement – which have seriously affected his/her work and need to be brought to the attention of the Board of Examiners when they make a final decision on the student's progression to the next year of study or his/her class of degree. The Board of Examiners has discretion to take serious adverse circumstances into account when making decisions regarding progression to the following year of study or the degree classification.

32. Students must inform the Board of Examiners of any serious adverse circumstances before the board meets. Students should not wait until they receive their marks to inform the Board.

33. Departments/schools must advertise to students:
a. the need to bring such information to the attention of the Board of Examiners before the meeting;

b. the date of the meeting of the Board of Examiners and the date by which SAC forms must be submitted [this date must always be after the last examination set by the department for which results are to be considered by the Board];

c. how to access support in completing the SAC form (e.g. the student’s College);

d. the name of the person to whom the information should be sent.

34. Students must submit evidence to the board of examiners using the Serious Adverse Circumstances form (see Appendix (A6.11))) which can also be obtained from colleges or departments. Colleges can provide assistance in completing the form. Students submitting a serious adverse circumstances form in respect of examinations are advised to submit the form after the relevant examination(s), in order to better articulate to the Board of Examiners the impact upon their performance.

35. Supporting evidence should be submitted with the form if available and appropriate. It is the student’s responsibility to collect and supply this evidence. Examples of acceptable evidence are listed below (this is an indicative list only, and does not cover all instances):

a. a medical certificate; letter from a medical practitioner; or medical records. Please note that doctors, consultants and other health care professionals are not obliged to supply medical certificates / letters, and will make a professional judgement on whether this is appropriate. Many medical practitioners charge for the supply of certificates / letters. It is the student’s responsibility to pay any such charges;

b. a letter from the student’s College Student Support Office;

c. a letter or report from a counsellor or other mental health professional. Please note that it is not appropriate for students to seek evidence from the University’s Counselling Service unless they have previously accessed this service or are in receipt of ongoing counselling from the service;

d. correspondence from the University’s Disability Support service. Please note that it is not appropriate for students to seek evidence from the Disability Support service unless they are registered users of the service.

Departments are asked to carefully and sympathetically consider the necessity of students who have previously disclosed a long-term disability to produce independent evidence of circumstances relating to their disability, using their professional discretion. Advice and guidance is available from the University’s Disability Support Service. Departments are similarly asked to sympathetically consider whether independent evidence is necessary in respect of adverse circumstances relating to pregnancy and maternity.

36. The normal expectation is that such supporting evidence should be first-hand and contemporaneous. For example, a professional medical judgment cannot normally be made on a past illness. In such circumstances, a medical certificate is likely to be refused. The University will not normally take into consideration uncorroborated ‘hearsay’ evidence, whosoever provides it (e.g. a letter from a medical practitioner stating ‘this patient of mine informs me that they were ill’).

37. However:

a. the University recognises that there are some entirely valid circumstances for which no independent evidence can be brought. For this reason, SAC submissions will not be discounted simply because they are not supported by independent evidence

b. independent evidence adds weight to the case only if it supports the conclusion that the student's studies and/or performance were seriously affected: it will not influence the Board of Examiners just because it is independent if it does not show this;

c. the Board of Examiners will also need to have evidence that the student's 'normal' standard of work was at a higher level than that of the assessment in question. This is so that the Board can make a fair assessment of the student's performance once the illness or other problem has been discounted. If no such evidence exists the board cannot exercise discretion in favour of the student.

38. Guidance for Boards of Examiners on the assessment of serious adverse circumstances requests is available in section 6.3.6 of the Learning and Teaching Handbook.

39. The Board of Examiners cannot alter a student's mark. It can only decide that, despite the relatively low mark, the student will still be able to progress to the next year of study or be awarded a higher class of degree. The student's transcript will show the mark actually obtained.

40. A student must use the Serious Adverse Circumstances Form to tell the Board of Examiners of his/her problems directly and must not assume that because they have told someone in the University (a member of staff from a College Student Support Office, a counsellor etc), the Board of Examiners will know.

41. Information given on the UCAS form is also not forwarded to boards of examiners as such information would not be sufficient for the Board of Examiners to judge how a problem had affected a student's work.

42. The University will not pass on information received by the Board of Examiners in the context of serious adverse circumstances to third parties.

43. When a student has had an examination concession (for example to give extra time in an exam because of a medical problem) the Board of Examiners will not take those circumstances into account over and above the terms of the concession unless the student submits a Serious Adverse Circumstances Form which additionally brings the circumstances to the attention of the board with evidence that the concession did not mitigate their problem.

44. Concessions such as extra time in an exam are intended to provide an environment which takes account of the student's problem. After the examination, the student's work is treated in the same way as any other student's work: it is marked by the same criteria and the marks are treated in the same way by the Board of Examiners. In bringing his/her circumstances to the attention of the board the student is expected to show that his/her situation was not adequately mitigated by the concessionary adjustment.

Absence from Examinations

45. Students who anticipate missing an examination for reasons beyond their control must notify their department and College as soon as possible and before the examination takes place. Where possible, departments might be able to arrange an alternative arrangement allowed by University policy.

46. No special arrangements can be made for students who miss examinations without good cause. As a result any such students will be subject to the University’s standard penalties for missing that examination

47. Students who miss an examination without good cause and are eligible for a resit will therefore be required to take the examination as a resit. In the case of modules for which a resit is not available students should receive a mark of zero for that examination

48. Boards of Examiners are not obliged to exercise their powers of discretion, but may do so where the board decides the case is compelling. Whenever they exercise their discretion in such cases, it is important that Boards of Examiners should strike a balance between fairness to the individual student and not advantaging him/her in relation to other students.

49. In all cases referred to above, a record of the case should be included in the minutes of the Board of Examiners meeting.

General principles for students who miss part or whole examinations/assessments for medical reasons or other good cause

50. When a student misses or anticipates missing an examination/assessment for medical reasons or other good cause (usually compassionate reasons such as a family crisis or bereavement) it is essential that:

a. the student notify their College as soon as possible. The College should then, as soon as possible, notify the Student Registry, the Board(s) of Studies and Examiners concerned, and, for Combined Honour students the Director of Combined Honours and, for Natural Sciences students, the Director of Natural Sciences;

b. students submit the Serious Adverse Circumstances (SAC) form as detailed above in paragraph 34, supplying evidence to substantiate the 'cause' whenever it is appropriate to do so;

c. independent evidence concerning students should, when judged appropriate by the person receiving the report, be circulated to all relevant parties. When circulating reports in this way, a circulation list should be shown at the bottom of the document and the Student Registry should be informed of all developments.

d. if a student fails to present themselves for examination, or are unable to complete the examination, the invigilators should report this on the Invigilators’ Report Form. Where a student is unable to complete an examination and the reasons for this are known and recorded on the Invigilators’ Report Form, this form constitutes independent evidence that may be used by a department in support of a SAC submission.
The general presumption is that, in the case of a student missing an examination for good cause, no special examination arrangements be made in the same examination period.

Procedures for students who arrive late for an examination

Students arriving late for an examination

51. Students who arrive after the start of the examination should be admitted to the examination, if allowed by University regulations, under the following conditions:

a. that the student shall only work for the remaining duration of the examination;

b. that the time of the student’s arrival, together with a brief note of explanation for the lateness, is recorded on the invigilator's report form.

For practical assessments

52. Students who arrive late for a practical assessment should be admitted to the laboratory or place of assessment, if allowed by University regulations, under the following conditions:

a. that the student shall only work for the remaining duration of the assessment;

b. that the time of the student's arrival, together with a brief note of explanation for the lateness, is recorded on the cover of the answer booklet(s) or other writing material.

Boards of Examiners

53. If a Board of Examiners makes any special allowance for students who arrive late for an examination this should be documented in the minutes.

Unusual circumstances or occurrences

54. Any unusual circumstances or occurrences connected with students who arrive late for an examination should be reported to the Student Registry.

Procedures for Level 1 students who miss some or all of their papers for medical reasons or other good cause

55. In the case of Preliminary Honours examinations taken as a first sit, students who miss the whole or part of their examination as a result of illness or other good cause shall be regarded as having a right to enter for the examination again at the next available examination period.

56. However, if a student has taken a substantial part of the examination, the subject Board of Examiners may agree to recommend to the appropriate General Examinations Board that the student may be considered to have passed the examination concerned. Such a recommendation would be made in consideration of overall performance throughout the year and expected attainment levels.

57. Students in the above category NOT considered to have passed the examination concerned shall be allowed, subject to concession, to re-take the examination as a first attempt during the next available examination period.

58. In the case of Preliminary Honours examinations taken as a second attempt, students who miss the whole or part of their examination as a result of illness or other good cause shall be regarded as having a right to enter for the examination again at the next available opportunity.

59. However, if a student has taken a substantial part of the examination, the subject Board of Examiners may agree to recommend to the appropriate General Examinations Board that the student may be considered to have passed the examination concerned. Such a recommendation would be made in consideration of overall performance throughout the year and expected attainment levels.

Procedures for students who, for medical reasons or other good cause, miss some or all of the Final Honours examinations which they are required to take at the end of Level 2 (and Level 3 for integrated master’s programmes)

60. The cases of all such students shall be referred to the appropriate Board of Examiners, together with the relevant evidence. The Board of Examiners may wish to grant a concession for such a student to re-take the examination as a first attempt.

Procedures for students who miss the whole or part of their Final Honours examination

61. Boards of Examiners shall consider the position of students who have missed certain papers in their Final Honours Examinations, either for medical reasons or other good cause.

62. If 75% or more of the evidence, which would have been provided had they completed the examination, is available, Boards of Examiners may award a classified degree or an Ordinary degree on the basis of the available evidence.

63. If less than 75% of the evidence is available, subject to the provision of suitable evidence of good cause, Boards of Examiners shall, in the case of Honours students, give consideration to recommending an Aegrotat degree (or, where a student has died, a Posthumous degree).

64. Since it does not follow that it would be right that all such students should be awarded an Aegrotat/Posthumous degree, each case should be examined carefully on its merits according to the procedure set out below:

a. The Board(s) of examiners, at their normal meeting, shall consider the position of a student in either of the above categories and shall decide:
i. whether they are prepared to recommend the award of an Aegrotat/Posthumous degree;
or
ii. whether they wish to recommend that no degree should be awarded;
or
iii. whether they wish to recommend that the student should be allowed an extraordinary examination (or, if appropriate, in the light of his/her disability, should be allowed to re-enter for examination on the next ordinary occasion);

b. At this stage, the student should NOT be informed of the Board of Examiners' view regarding the award of an Aegrotat degree;

c. if the decision is to recommend the award of an Aegrotat/Posthumous degree, the Board(s) of Examiners should provide details of work already completed by the student prior to the missed examinations (e.g. course-work, essays, part 1 Finals marks), and an assurance that this work had been seen by the external examiner, who supports the recommendation for an Aegrotat/Posthumous degree;

d. the Board(s) of Examiners should indicate whether the option of the student sitting an extraordinary examination had been considered and should provide the rationale for the recommendation being made;

e. the Chair of the relevant Faculty Education Committee (Undergraduate), in consultation with the Chair of the Education Committee (EC), shall consider the statement and recommendations of the Board of Examiners and shall decide whether an Aegrotat/Posthumous degree shall be awarded, whether a further entry for the examination should be allowed and, where relevant, whether a choice of these alternatives is permissible;

f. if the decision of the Chair of the relevant Faculty Education Committee, after consultation with the Chair of the EC, is positive, the student shall be notified of the final decision reached;

g. if the decision allows the exercise of a choice, the student shall be asked to choose between the immediate award of an unclassed Aegrotat degree and re-entry for examination at a time to be specified, through which he or she may be eligible for the award of a classed degree.